Michael Chabon's excellent new novel "Telegraph Avenue" is the saga of two music-obsessed men, partners in a used record store, a marginal commercial enterprise located on the border between Oakland and Berkeley that caters to similarly obsessed collectors of vintage jazz LPs. The novel examines the impact of their Peter Pan-complex cum business on their respective families when the business itself faces an acute, existential threat.
The principal protagonist is Archy Stallings, one of the two partners in the Brokeland Records store. He is in his mid-thirties, black, deeply flawed, but resilient and multi-talented. He is facing an identity crisis as his wife Gwen, a nurse and mid-wife, is approaching full term with their first child. The main narrative thread is how Archy navigates this belated coming-of-age crisis as the novel builds to a dramatic crescendo. We cheer for Archy as he attempts to deal with the legacy of his abandoned father, his own abandoned teenage son, his failing business, and the crazy quilt pattern of enduring relationships to the battered, predominantly black community around him, both nurturing and predatory.
This is a big, over-stuffed novel of realism that occupies the middle ground, somewhere between Tom Wolfe and Tom Pynchon. Along the way, the novel has a lot to say about race and class in America. For example, one section begins,
"Along with the backyard coops of heirloom laying hens, the collectively owned pizzerias, the venerable Volvos that had rolled off the line at Torlanda before ABBA first went gold, the racks of Dynaco tube amplifiers, the BPA-free glass baby bottles, and the ramshackle wonderland known as the Adventure Playground, one minor component in the patchwork of levees erected by the citizens of Berkeley, California, in their ongoing battle to defend their polder against the capitalist flood tides of consumerist uniformity, was a telephone hanging on the wall of the Jaffe family's kitchen, a model 554 with a rotary dial, smiley-face yellow, its handset connected to its plastic shell by a snaking twenty-five foot helix of yellow cord, kinked by old and unsolvable knots."
The charm of Chabon's novel is in passages very much like the one quoted above. He is a prose stylist of the highest order. There is one remarkable set piece where he gets inside the head of two teenage boys, immersed in their D&D fantasies and re-shaping the real world they encounter to fit. There is an entire chapter in the center of the novel that is explicitly written as a jazz improvisation. There is lots of hard-boiled dialog from both the male and female characters that crackles with cynical wit. There is even a cameo appearance from a certain State Senator from Illinoi, recently vaulted into national prominence in late 2004 when the principal action of the novel takes place.
I give it four stars instead of five for its degree of difficulty, and only by comparison to "The Yiddish Policemen's Union," which was a brilliant tour de force. "Telegraph Avenue" is the more ambitious novel, however, and the Reader who tackles it is richly rewarded.